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(Courtesy Sean Collins, Robert Markowitz (photographer) and NASA)

Poster Boys (and Girls)

Astronauts show a lighter side in their unofficial crew posters

When you think of astronauts, several descriptions come to mind: Brave. Intelligent. Heroic. Probably not “humorous.” But once you’ve taken a look at their crew posters, you may change your mind.

Shuttle and space station crews customarily take a series of photographs near the end of their pre-mission training, all shot on the same day. There’s a group photo, individual photos, family shots, and pictures taken with co-workers, foreign aides, and the crew secretary. But the last 15 minutes of the photo shoot are set aside for what has come to be known as a “fun photo.” Over time, the fun photo has transformed into a parody, due to the efforts of one man, Sean Collins, the graphics technical lead at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The Space Station Expedition 26 poster (above) is typical of Collins’ meticulous work. Having decided it should parody The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover, he contacted EMI Music in England to ask about the original photo. Unfortunately, Iain Macmillan, who had done the Abbey Road shoot, died in 2006, and it wasn’t clear who retained the copyright to the image. “So I went over to Building One at Johnson Space Center,” says Collins, “and talked the guard into blocking off traffic. That street was the closest thing I could find that looked like Abbey Road.” In place of the white Volkswagen in the Beatles’ original, Collins inserted a lunar electric rover, and he changed the crosswalk to the Roman numerals 26.

Then he posed the astronauts, with careful attention to posture and hand placement. From left to right are European astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri as “George Harrison”; Cady Coleman as “Paul McCartney” (“Cady was a real good sport,” says Collins. “She took her shoes off and said ‘Can you fix my toenail polish? It’s chipped on one side.’ Instead of a cigarette, I had her hold a shuttle pin that I had in my office.”); Dmitry Kondratyev and Oleg Skripochka as “Ringo Starr”; and station commander Scott Kelly as “John Lennon.”

See more crew posters below, and learn how the tradition started.

Think Safety: STS-98

(Courtesy Sean Collins and NASA)

Collins’ 2001 creation for the STS-98 shuttle crew began the “fun poster” tradition. The crew had been asked to make a safety poster for the space shuttle work force, and astronaut Marsha Ivins decided to think outside the box. “It was Marsha’s idea for the crew to wear leather,” says Collins, “and she asked me to paint barbed-wire tattoos on everyone.” While the image was shot against a plain background, Collins searched the Internet for graffiti (“making sure there weren’t cuss words in it”), and added the trash bags. “All of a sudden, everybody’s loving it, and ordering extra prints,” he says. “The original run was probably 200, and we wound up printing something like 10,000 copies. And then the policy came out—no more 'joke' posters. Maybe they were afraid it made the astronauts look bad. But then that policy went away because the poster was so popular.”

From left to right are STS-98 crewmembers Marsha Ivins, Robert Curbeam, Ken Cockrell, Mark Polansky, and Tom Jones.

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